Why Games Should Scale Horizontally Instead of Vertically


“Vertical scaling” is the de facto way that most MMORPGs are designed: gamers level a character up to max level, then they grind out tiers of gear in PVE or PVP. And if you roll another character, you repeat the same process.

Here are the issues with the vertical scaling:

  1. It’s grindy
  2. It creates brackets. You can’t do content with other players unless your character levels / gear scores are sufficiently close
  3. It causes power creep. Content is initially too difficult, but once players obtain the gear to do the content, it becomes progressively less difficult until it’s trivial
  4. It creates dead zones and content. This happens when the bulk of active characters are at level cap and whenever expansions are released with new content

I believe that “horizontal scaling” – where new characters have a baseline set of necessary tools and progressing your character is about broadening your capabilities instead of centering on gear acquisition – would provide a much better solution for both gamers and developers.

Here are the benefits of horizontal scaling:

  1. There are no brackets due to level or gear score. You can roll a new character and immediately group with other more-experienced characters
  2. It levels the playing field in PVE and PVP. Performing well isn’t about your level or gear score, it’s about your ability to play your character effectively and work in a team
  3. Content (zones, instances, etc) stays relevant forever

Here’s how would progression could work in a horizontal scaling system:

  1. Take achievements to the next level, so that the game tracks performance at a granular level…
    – What’s my fastest time-to-clear for this instance (because this instance is never outdated)?
    – What’s my fastest TTC for this boss fight?
    – What’s my fastest Huttball match win ever?…and then have these stats feed into Leaderboards…- Which players / guilds have the fastest TTC for this boss for this week / the past x weeks / all-time?
    – Who had the highest DPS on this boss fight this week / month / all-time?

    So doing content for competitively-minded players is about excellence in execution, not getting geared up.

  1. Support customization of the character’s look (armor / weapons / clothing) and guild heraldry based on achievements and performance
  2. Have weapons with different capabilities, so that “gearing up” is about building up a collection of weapons that you can use in various situations or to support particular playstyles. So you acquire a Cinderburn staff if you want to buff up your Mage’s DoTs capability, or you acquire an Earthbind staff if you want to buff your Mage’ earth-based CC capability. But you just have to acquire each weapon once. There isn’t a +1 Flaming Sword, +2 Flaming Sword staff, etc – there’s just a Flaming Sword

I believe horizontal scaling would create a much more fun experience for gamers and also provide better ROI on content for game developers.

Let me know what you think!

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Posted in Game Design, PVP, Video
81 comments on “Why Games Should Scale Horizontally Instead of Vertically
  1. […] by implementing vertical scaling systems. That’s the #1 issue. As I discussed elsewhere, horizontal scaling systems work better for having content that remains relevant and provides much be…, which still providing entertainment value for the gamer. I would argue that horizontal scaling […]

  2. Omari Dennis says:

    This is really brilliant! I can see why you are so excited for GW2.

  3. Brittain Sluder says:

    Well said. The part about keeping past zones relevant is a biggie imo.

  4. […] creating sticky horizontal progression, as I discussed earlier this year in my vlog entitled “Why Games Should Scale Horizontally Instead of Vertically“. Players who accomplish meaningful things should be rewarded with cosmetic items, bragging […]

  5. grindwars2 says:

    lol it’s almost heartbreaking to read these hopeful comments posted pre-ascended. Oh well. The genre still pretty much sucks.

  6. rekindledflame says:

    I wouldn’t say the genre completely sucks. Ascended was certainly a step in the wrong direction in my opinion. I think it was in response to the drop off of players in the last couple of months, but there were many things they could have done to address that issue that would have been better. As pointed out in the video, achievement systems can garner competitive behavior that causes people to stick around. The achievements need meaning though, unlike what GW2 currently has (other than daily/monthly), also leaderboards for both pve and pvp. It is unfortunate, that ascended is the route they decided upon, considering it was not how the game was originally promoted, but hopefully ascended will be the only ‘tier’ ever involved outside of what already exists. I for one, am not holding my breath though.

    What gw2 got right though, is spvp. It is such a great experience to have access to the same gear, skills etc as everyone else and be able to competitively pvp no matter where you are in the pve experience. No matter if you’re level 1 or 80, it’s your build, player skill and team dynamics versus another one. That’s not to say the current system is perfect by any means, but that aspect at least is spot on. Leader boards as I said would help here too though. Nothing garners competition, like aiming for the top. Knowing exactly how you stack up against the world, can help push you to take your gaming to the next level as well as give you a goal to shoot for. Hopefully though, they take some aspects from their first game, improve upon them, and put them in gw2, to expand upon this great core foundation they have set up.

  7. Pineapples says:

    Great video! I link it to people all the time when trying to explain the difference between horizontal and vertical progression systems in MMOs.
    I think you might be very interested in Camelot Unchained, Mark Jacobs’s new RvR focused MMO. It appears that they will be using a horizontal progression system similar to the one you described in this video.
    Check out the Camelot Unchained Kickstarter campaign at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/13861848/camelot-unchained See what you think =)

  8. Pineapples says:

    Hi Taugrim,

    I hope you don’t mind that we’ve linked to this video on the Camelot Unchained FAQ as its the best explanation of horizontal progression, (which CU will be using) that we’ve found.

    Here is the link: http://camelotunchained.wikispaces.com/Character+Advancement

  9. Alcastre says:

    After hearing what EQN ( everquest next ) is doing I instantly thought of this article and how it made a great case for horizontal progression. Maybe someone at SOE thought so too. Be interested to know if you have heard anything about EQN Taugrim. Aside from that sorry for the necroing :)

  10. The one problem is the lack of realism. Some people are better at some things than others. You’re on to something great here.

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